Show me the data!

Elsevier selling access to open access again

February 14th, 2017 | Posted by rmounce in Paywall Watch

TL;DR Elsevier are selling access to open access articles again

I saw this humorous tweet today:

This tweet references the fact that Elsevier have been caught selling access to paid-for “open access” articles in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

After the 2014 scandal they self-reported an internal audit (with no external or independent oversight) and apparently refunded a total of “about $70,000” to readers who had ‘mistakenly’ been allowed to purchase articles that should have been open access. There was no independent audit of Elsevier’s systems – this was all self-reported. Can you imagine allowing Volkswagen to self-report diesel emissions? Not a good idea!

I do not trust Elsevier to self-report on the scale of these events – I really really think governments should step-in here and external, independent auditors should be given access to their internal systems to determine independently the scale of these “mistakes” that defraud readers to the financial benefit of Elsevier.

Now as you know recently I’ve been looking at 2-years worth of Wellcome Trust open access APC payment data.

This post is just to let the world know that in 2017 Elsevier are doing it again. They are selling articles that have been paid-for to be open access.

According to public data available on Figshare, Wellcome Trust paid Elsevier £2,168.08 to make open access an article entitled:

A multi-center comparison of diagnostic methods for the biochemical evaluation of suspected mitochondrial disorders paid to be open access on behalf of WT Grant number: 096919, Professor DM Turnbull, Newcastle University.

Today (14th February 2017), from Elsevier’s ScienceDirect website, I found that this article was behind a paywall. To be able to access this at home (outside the paywall), Elsevier charged me $43.14 including tax, in return for 24 hours access to this paid-for “open access” article. I bought access to the article to prove beyond doubt that Elsevier really were selling this open access article and it wasn’t just some fleeting browser error that they could explain away.

Below is a screenshot of my emailed electronic receipt as proof, with my home address crudely redacted to protect my privacy.

If you are a journalist and would like to talk more about this case, or the history and extent of ‘paywalled open access’ please email me at:

In the mean time I shall be contacting both the Wellcome Trust and Elsevier to alert them about this issue, again.




  • Kudos to you for actually going ahead and buying the article! Even if it temporarily swells the coffers of Elsevier, it’s in a good cause.

  • Klaas van Dijk

    You might consider to inform the people of the independant advisory board of experts at about this topic.

  • Pingback: Open Science Links vom 16.02.2017()

  • Pingback: For Want of a Copy Editor the Sense Was Lost – Lingua Franca - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education()

  • Alicia Wise

    Hi Ross, this has taken a little time to bottom out but indeed the article should be OA. In 2013 you may recall we initiated an exercise to add/correct and generally clean up OA license information on articles. This article was part of that exercise, and a little unusual: we had invoiced the author, and then the institution wanted to receive the invoice but in a different currency, so the original article invoice was unpaid during the cleaning exercise.

    Our normal practice is to publish articles OA, but to move them back behind the firewall if after a grace period the invoice remains unpaid. So it was picked up as an article with an unpaid APC and moved behind the firewall. We’ve gone through the system, this is the only article affected. There’s nothing malicious about what happened here, and we’ll be reimbursing the institution’s APC, and your PPV charge. We will also run a check to see if anyone else paid PPV for this article and if so reimburse them as well.


    Dr Alicia Wise
    Director of Access & Policy